I will just go ahead and be honest with all of you right now. As I sit down to write this review I am having trouble finding the exact words to begin to describe Bioshock Infinite. I mean that in the best possible way of course. As my brain processes all of what I experienced in the city in the clouds named Columbia, I begin to have that same sense of wonder that I was left with after I played 2007’s Bioshock with one significant difference: Bioshock Infinite took everything I loved about the original and improved it greatly while adding what is easily the best written story of this gaming generation.
Now before we begin I want you all to know that this will be a spoiler free review, so have no fear while you are reading along. I will take the more difficult road and temper my want to just expose everything I discovered in this game because I love all of you. That is not to say that me or my fellow colleague, Trey Sterling (who will be reviewing the game also), will not have a later article discussing the complete epic mindfucks that happen in this game, but not today and not here!
You begin the game as Booker DeWitt, a man that has led a life that has been quite unsavory. He has fallen in deep with the wrong people and has agreed to take on a peculiar job in order to clean his slate. You are being led out to a lighthouse in a roaring storm on a boat being rowed by two strangers. A lockbox is handed to you with a photo of a girl and other items. The message is very clear as to what your job is. Bring them the girl and wipe away the debt.
Once you reach the lighthouse, you make your way inside and are greeted with a basin of water to wash away your sins and biblical sounding messages framed on the wall. You make your way to the top and sit in a chair when when walls begin to close around you. Sound familiar? Instead of burrowing your way down into the underwater city of Rapture, you are rocketed skyward and when you break through the clouds you are treated to your first view of the floating city of Columbia. After landing you make your way into the city via unusual means and your adventure begins.
One of the many, many things that Bioshock Infinite does right is that you are given ample time to explore and fully take in how fully realized the city of Columbia is. Citizens live their lives as you walk among them. They have conversations while kids play in the streets. Shops occupy not just business sections, but also, some float on there own and connect with other parts of the city to give patrons a chance to peruse their stock. You can walk up and view other floating parts through telescopes placed around. It is every bit as memorable as the first time you stepped foot into Rapture only this time instead of a cold, dead society you are greeted with a warm, lively version of 1912 America. Take your time and enjoy the quiet serenity, because it does not last.
The proceedings take a sudden and very racially charged turn and before you know it you are enemy number one floating thousands of feet above the ground with no where to go except towards your cargo. When you first begin combat it will feel very familiar to the original Bioshock with one noticeable difference being the Skyhook. The Skyhook is a spinning hook that is wearable on your left hand and is used in transporting yourself around the city on the sky rail system and also as a vicious melee weapon. You also have a pistol, your health bar and your vigor gauge (which takes the place of plasmids). You begin with a simple possession vigor which can be used to take over turrets in your favor and even other humans and have them attack others. Vigors are refilled with salts which can be acquired through bottles, vending machines and various other loot items found throughout the world of Columbia. As you begin the game, you will feel a sense of trepidation when using vigors, but have no fear, you can upgrade them as well as your health and shield (new to the Bioshock series) by finding infusions scattered throughout.
There are eight total vigors in Bioshock Infinite and they will be familiar to fans of the series, even with the new names. My personal favorites were Murder of Crows and Shock Jockey, especially when used in conjunction with each other. Shock Jockey is, of course, an electric field you shoot out of your hands Emperor Palpatine-style and Murder of Crows sends out a Hitchcock-like swarm of birds to eviscerate your enemies. Devil’s Kiss send out a fiery ball to set men ablaze while Return To Sender catches enemy projectiles and lobs them back. I won’t go through every one of them because I want you to have the pleasure of discovering them and finding out all the unique combinations that are possible.
Tear Columbia A New One
Just as the combat experience in Bioshock Infinite begins to feel like you might be in for a repeat of the previous adventures to Rapture, you are introduced to Elizabeth. She is the daughter of Columbia’s founder, Zachary Comstock, and the girl you are supposed to bring back from Columbia to wipe away your debt. She is trapped away in a monument and been carefully watched her whole life by the scientists and zealots of Columbia, but why? Why does Comstock keep his only daughter locked away from all outside interference and have literary propaganda thrown about the city promising she is the future savior of Columbia? Perhaps the fact that she can tear open the fabric of time and space to see anything she wishes in any time period. Yeah, that would do it for me too.
When you rescue Elizabeth from her tower prison you discover she has been protected and cared for by a huge, mechanical creature called the Songbird which you should know if you bought the massive $150 collector’s edition. He will make occasional visits to screw up your journey.
Once Elizabeth joins you in your escape from Columbia, this is when combat fully opens up and separates itself from the original Bioshock. You don’t have to worry about this being one big, long, annoying escort mission. Elizabeth can take care of herself and before the game reaches its completion she will have saved your sorry ass more times than you can count. She is always readily on hand and ready to toss you anything you happen to be lacking during the many frenetic gunfights you will encounter. You will see a prompt come on screen and Elizabeth yell at you and simply press the corresponding button and she will supply you with health, salts or ammo. I will warn you not to become overly dependent on this though because there will be times, especially during lengthy battles, where she will run out of supplies. So don’t get cocky and expect her to always come along and pull you out of the fire.
The biggest addition to combat in Bioshock Infinite is the fact that Elizabeth can open tiny tears in space and make available to you new ways to get the better of the people hunting you down. She can summons sentry guns, mosquitoes (floating automated machine guns), walls for instant cover, medical stations and even skyhook connections that allow you to get the higher ground in a hurry. You may consider yourself a Bioshock expert with your learned use of weapons and vigor combinations, but it is the mastery of those two things and Elizabeth’s abilities that will truly make you feel like you are a badass. You could play through this game over and over again and no two battles will ever be the same. Do you take cover behind a wall created by Elizabeth and use your vigors and weapons like a cover-based shooter? Have her create a skyhook connection and get to higher ground, rain down some Shock Jockey then take out a few guys with your sniper rifle? Have her summon a patriot and as your enemies are focused on him, sneak around and flank your enemies? My brain is literally spinning right now trying to remember just how many different variations I used and all the new ways I can try on my next playthrough.
A quick word to the wise when it comes to upgrading your abilities: build up your shield first. The shield is new to Bioshock Infinite and is a life saver on many occasions. It will regenerate unlike your health so getting this to maximum quickly is a very good idea. I actually upgraded my health last after my shield and vigors. My shield recharges and I can find food everywhere for small boosts until I could find a vending machine for a refills. I used my vigors almost constantly so upgrading them second just made sense so I could have more uses of my powers.
Enemies in Columbia range from meh to memorable. In Rapture you were truly freaked when you came across splicers for the first time or when you watched the Big Daddy lumber by on the other side of the glass. Columbia has a wide range of enemies, but none really jump out at you…with the exceptions of the Handyman and Boys of Silence. The easiest way to describe the Handyman is to think of the big badassery of the Big Daddy and let him run fast and jump far so he can be all up in your face before you know it. The Boys of Silence are only used in one area of Columbia, but it is more than memorable. You must remain unseen or they can call in an army of dead creatures. Believe me, after one time, you will quiet the hell down. The other members of the rogues gallery like firemen or soldiers do not give you the same feeling as the denizens of Rapture. They feel more like cannon fodder.
This is the hardest part of my review to write. I have to convey to you how truly amazing the story is without possibly giving away anything. Bioshock Infinite could be called many things. A look back on the racial tensions that has marred this country for generations. An indictment on American culture today when it pertains to the working class and the one percent. A look at family and how the dreams of parents for their children are not always what is best for either party. Bioshock Infinite is layer after layer of storytelling and as you delve deeper into Columbia you may think you have a grasp on what is going on, but you truly have no idea. There is one event about 85% into the game where you believe a big reveal happens and you begin to think that maybe your idea about the ending was a bit muted and disappointing and you, like me, will be completely wrong. I promised a spoiler free review and dammit that is what I am going to do, but I honestly have to tell you that the last thirty minutes of Bioshock Infinite left my jaw agape and my controller nearly slipped out of my hands. I can not stress enough that you should let no one ruin the end of this game for you. This is coming from a cynical bastard that does not care about spoilers. Don’t do it.
You should know that the skyhook system does not make this game into a huge open world adventure. Now that is so minute that it should not register when weighed against the overall incredible feeling of this game, but I feel that I need to let you know that. The skyhook is used in combat (amazingly) and it is used to funnel you betwen areas, like a fancy ass tunnel system from Batman: Arkham Asylum. You can go back and forth between areas as you want for side missions and what not, but don’t go into Infinite thinking you are going to be getting Bioshock: San Andreas. I am pretty sure if you are playing Infinite then you are familiar with the structure of the original Bioshock, but I had to put that out there for new adopters.
I can not say enough about the experience that is Bioshock Infinite. I have tried to explain how you immediately get lost in the world of Columbia and how smooth and free-flowing the combat is, yet there is no real way to truly put into words just how deep, emotional and satisfying this game is.
What Ken Levine and the team at Irrational have been able to craft with Bioshock Infinite is nothing short of awe inspiring. If you thought you got lost in the immersion of Rapture then you haven’t seen anything yet. It is a one of those surreal experiences of gaming bliss that only comes along a few times in a gaming generation. Bioshock, Mass Effect, Uncharted 3, all these belong in the same company. Bioshock Infinite should be held higher than all of them. It has taken everything that was good about Bioshock and made it great. That alone should tell you exactly how wonderful a game we are dealing with here. Then add to it that it also improved what made Bioshock great, adding in the greatest story of this console generation, and what you are left with is gaming history.
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